We love Shakespeare.
Shakespeare can be an intimidating addition to your homeschool journey – but it does not have to be! By biting off small chucks and going slowly, you can dig in and the Bard can enrich your home. Here are tips to get started:
The Play’s the Thing.
Pick a Play You Love
Shakespeare wrote 39ish plays and it can be hard to decide where to start. Your feelings for the work will spill over to your kids and influence their reactions, so it’s important to pick a play that you like.
Do you have fond memories of Baz Lehrman’s Romeo + Juliet? Read Romeo and Juliet! Do you have strong feeling about Brutus and Julius Caesar? Start there.
Does the thought of Shakespeare only fill you with boredom and fear? Don’t worry! You can still pick a play and have fun reading it with your children.
If you don’t love a play, it may help to pick a play that you already know a bit. If you’re worried your kids will ask you questions and you won’t be able to answer, buy yourself a copy of the “No Fear Shakespeare” version. It has a modern translation on the opposite page from the original text and can help you interpret on the fly. (Although I do not recommend No Fear versions for kids. More on that below.)
Another way to decide what play to read is to check with your local theaters to see if anyone is doing any Shakespeare in the Park. Pick a play that you can see in person as a treat.
Will they get it?
Not at first. The language is different and it will take time – but it’s worth stumbling through a few plays so they can reap rewards later.
As an example, the second play we did was MacBeth with my oldest in grade 5. On his own, he connected the knocking that MacBeth and his wife hear after the murder with the drumming sound in Tell-Tale Heart. ON HIS OWN. Any theme or idea I pointed out to him I’m sure he’s already forgotten, but his own brain working out that connection will be with him forever. Any child can make these connections when presented with good literature and it’s worth the hard reading work to get there.
But they do bad things…
There are people in Shakespeare’s plays that do ugly things. They sin. It’s true. They make poor choices, get angry, murder, and more. But on the whole, their poor choices have terrible consequences and the basic world-view of most of the plays is Christian.
The good that can come from reading Shakespeare outweighs the bad and it’s worth digging in a having discussions about what the characters do and what happens to them. (not in a moralizing way…but that’s a talk for another day.)
Can we do the same play twice?
Yes! We’ve read Much Ado About Nothing, like, three times over the years and every time we see something new. When you are already familiar with the plot, you can catch more jokes and tropes.
Some families start by reading a summary, like Lamb’s Shakespeare, before they read the real play for that very reason – so they don’t have to focus on plot and can just have fun reading. That’s a fine idea. Our family has always had at least one kid old enough to read the real play, so we just read the play and follow up with a film or live version if we can find a good one.
Go Slow – just reading a scene a day, you can read at least three Shakespeare Plays easily. Let everyone pick a character or two and act it out in your own living room. Not enough family members? Make simple peg dolls to be your actors.
It can be fun to have a movie night and watch a good Kenneth Branagh version of a play. A subscription to your local PBS station can be a cost effective way to find some Shakespeare on TV.
After you have a few plays under your belt, check out Shakespeare Live! from the RSC. It was a celebration at the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death and features lots of actors you family may appreciate.
Another great resource I have found is The Play’s the Thing – a podcast by Circe Institute. They pick a play and talk about it one act at a time. Very helpful for parents and older students to find another level of understanding Shakespeare and his work.